Air Astana began direct flights to the capital of Georgia in 2011, and currently uses either an Embraer 190 or Airbus A320 on the route.
From downtown Tbilisi it was an 18-minute ride to the airport, which is a neat, compact building with only four air gates. There was only a single Air Astana business class check-in, but it was free when we arrived, and the security and immigration sections upstairs were well staffed and swift (though the officers seemed to think gruffness was obligatory).
The “Prime Class” lounge is immediately to the right from immigration once airside. There is an “alfresco” area underneath a high glass ceiling that is airy, while inside to the left is a plush, dark seating area.
To the right is a larger, pleasingly colourful section with a range of white sofa chairs and unusually colourful and eclectic paintings on the walls. At the back of the lounge are two computers, and the washrooms are basic but clean.
You need to sit next to the walls to have access to power points, and these are the twin round pin recessed variety, so a suitable travel adapter is necessary. The food and drink section is small and not particularly appetising, with three hot dish options, plus tomato soup, and a few cold-cut and cheese plates. The pastries were slightly stale, but the coffee was very good. Wifi was instant access and quite fast.
BOARDING At 1330 I went to the gate for flight KC142 (scheduled for a 1350 departure). Boarding began for business class at 1332, but we were stopped at the plane entrance as it was not quite ready, and waited five minutes before we could board. Once in my seat I was offered juice, Champagne or water as the pilot informed us the flight would take three hours 15 minutes (half an hour shorter than scheduled). We left the gate at 1355 and were airborne at 1405.
The seats are fairly old fashioned, in dark-blue leatherette, but are comfortably wide and legroom is ample – although I noticed slight obstructions under the window seats that were not present in the aisle seats. There’s a foot rest and each seat has its own universal power point beneath the inner armrest, which is wide enough for two and has both a small fixed shelf area and a pullout shelf for extra space to put drinks, bowls of nuts, etc. Seat recline was reasonable but unremarkable, and there’s plenty of overhead bin space for the number of seats.
I was in seat 4A – this plane has a 2-2 configuration with 16 business class seats. Row four is the back one, and with this plane type there is no hard partition between business and economy, meaning that if the person behind you in economy happens to be very tall or rowdy, your seat gets bumped quite a lot.
This unfortunately was the case for me – the man behind me had exceptionally long legs and his left knee poked down the side of the plane beside my armrest. He settled down eventually but when I tried to raise my table from the armrest it hit his leg and he had to stand up to let me access it. It wasn’t a major issue, but was mildly irritating.
There’s no seat-back IFE screen – instead, tablets are handed out offering KCTV’s range of about 50 movies plus games and a couple of TV series. This system is very easy to navigate and the headphones that come with it are comfortable and work well – a strap in the seat-back in front of you allows you to hang the tablet at face height for more comfortable viewing.
WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE Unless you really enjoy window gazing – and the Caucasus Mountains, Caspian Sea and Central Asian steppe can be a mesmerising sight – choose an aisle seat for direct aisle access – and perhaps steer clear of row four (to avoid the possibility of my experience). The washroom is beyond the galley so the front rows are fine.
THE FLIGHT Menus were given out after take-off and main course orders taken. Drinks were served first, with a choice of Taittinger Champagne, Italian and Chilean red wines and South African and French whites, plus a very good selection of spirits and cocktails, and two types of beer including Karaganda. I tried the Raoul Gautherin & Fils Chablis, which was light and fruity.
Twenty minutes later the food arrived. The starters were excellent – a honey and thyme roasted pumpkin and rocket salad, plus dill marinated prawns with Badrijani eggplant roulade and black sweet pickled walnut on goat’s cheese. The flavours were strong enough to work at altitude – given that we were coming from Georgia, which is famous for its varied and flavourful food, I wasn’t surprised.
Main courses included chicken, lamb, prawn and vegetarian options, all offered with interesting accompaniments of a Georgian or Turkic nature. I had roast vegetable cabbage rolls with a mint yoghurt dressing and deep-fried beetroot straws – simply delicious. That really was enough, but when a dessert table was wheeled down the aisle, I couldn’t resist the honey cake, which turned out to be exquisite and paired perfectly with my strong black coffee.
The flight attendants were attentive to all the passengers, constantly offering drink refills, etc. There was enough time to watch a full movie before descent began and the tablets were taken.
We began our descent at 1845 local time and touched down at Almaty airport at 1905, disembarking ten minutes later. Immigration was much improved from five years ago, especially with new visa-free regulations for most countries. We waited less than ten minutes for our baggage, and a new expressway has shortened the travel time into the city to about 30 minutes by car.
This may be an older style plane with an ageing seat product, but for a short- to mid-haul flight it fits the bill fine, the IFE offering is good, and the food and service quality are of a very high standard for this region.
JOURNEY TIME 3 hours 35 mins
SEAT WIDTH 21in/53cm
SEAT PITCH 37in/94cm
PRICE Internet rates for a return business class flight from Tblisi to Almaty in mid-August start from €970 (US$1,110) including tax and surcharges